The Continuing Cult Of Classroom Observation

Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Whose side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information . . . information . . . information!
Prisoner: You won’t get it!
Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number; I AM A FREE MAN!!!
Number Two: [Laughter]

The Prisoner (1967) opening sequence

The looking glass world of Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 TV series The Prisoner has, I feel, many parallels with modern education. Our careers, our hopes and aspirations, even our very dreams, often depend on numbers . . . information, if you will. Or data as modern educational parlance would have it.

Some of the most important numbers in a teacher’s life are the (now happily defunct) single lesson Ofsted lesson gradings; although, not so happily, many schools still insist on using them for appraisal and performance management.

For the past few years I have mostly been Number Two. However, at times I have been Number Three (because one student copied an answer from another student and I didn’t notice — I kid you not!); and once a Number Four (because I asked the students to copy a model paragraph off the board — “We’ll have no copying in this school, sirrah!”)

“I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM EXPERIENCED AND SKILLED INDIVIDUAL WHO DESERVES DUE MEASURE OF PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY!!!” [Cue maniacal laughter from SLTs and the DfE as lightning flashes and thunder roars.]

Rob Coe ably summarises the problems with minimally-trained observers in this blog post. He writes:

…if your lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’, do whatever you can to avoid getting a second opinion: three times out of four you would be downgraded. If your lesson is judged ‘Inadequate’ there is a 90% chance that a second observer would give a different rating.

He mentions that observers tend to overestimate their own observational prowess. If you fall into this camp, and haven’t seen the clip before, do the selective attention test — go on, do it, I dare you!

As Richard Feynman said of the scientific method: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

Too often, the high stakes observations we undergo end up enforcing educational fads rather than real good practice. As a colleague dryly observed to me the other day: “It shows that with one week’s notice and four hours preparation I can teach a lesson the way they want me to!”

Rob Coe makes some measured and sensible suggestions at the end of his blog post. However, for my part, I will finish with a further quote from The Prisoner and a bit of wishful thinking:

“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”
The Prisoner

Ofsted Is Irrelevant, Sadly

The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

Capt. Picard: We would rather die.

The Borg: Death is irrelevant.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 (1990)

There was a time when I would have danced a jig for joy at the thought of Ofsted being irrelevant.

However, that is no longer the case. Ofsted in recent times have taken a most unexpected lurch towards sweet reasonableness and common sense (at least in some aspects of their operations).

This has wrong footed a number of us, I can tell you. Some might argue that it is too little, too late — but late is better than never.

That it is a genuine sea change can be gauged from the fact that Ofsted has felt it necessary to publish an “Ofsted mythbusters” page. Amongst the highlights are: no individual lesson plans are required for inspections; no set amount of lesson observation evidence and no internal individual lesson gradings will be required; and, there is no — repeat, NO! — requirement for any particular type, frequency or volume of pupil book marking or feedback.

And yet, and what have a large number of schools and multi-academy chains chosen to do with this valuable document? That’s right, they have chosen to IGNORE this advice and continue with their previous systems and procedures: the La-la-la!-I’m-not-listening!-La-la-la! stratagem, if you will.

This isn’t a case of Zombie-Ofsted, as I erroneously suggested in previous post. This is a case of research-informed, actually quite sensible educational advice being wilfully and deliberately ignored by a range of educational institutions.

The New Blob* has come into its own and it’s watchwords are:
1. Double and triple marking (using pens of many colours!)
2. Graded lesson observations (#Cause the graders gonna grade, grade, grade, grade, grade!)
3. Outstanding (as in “Are you an outstanding teacher?” — see no.2 above)

Ofsted is truly irrelevant, sadly.

* perhaps Edu-Borg might be a better description